Cormorant Books, Toronto 2011, Winner of the Jim Conners Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction) 2012
Great Village brings us the smell of the ocean, the richness of friendships and the numbing horror brought by the secrets of the past.
Flossy O’Reilly is an aging retired school teacher living in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet her as she is looking back on her life while feeling threatened by a death she feels is imminent.
The story opens with a gripping flashback to Flossy’s youth when her older brother came in from his field work one day, went directly up to his bed and stayed there for 24 years. With the unfolding of her memories we begin to understand what brought about his breakdown just as we learn of the pressures it brought to the family.
Donnelly’s characters are richly and convincingly painted. Flossy’s brother Jimmy is a bit of a hayseed with tatty bird’s nest hair and crooked Onassis glasses. The ocean itself is a character, presented as a living and vibrant friend. But it brings death, with sucking red mud edges, and the huge tides of the Bay of Fundy.
Flossy’s lifelong friend and larger than life artist Mealie moves hugely through the kitchen and in fact throughout the whole story. She is a wonderful source of humour as the two women chat over their morning coffee, the interchange often making us laugh out loud. As warm and intelligent as this friendship is, silence pervades as well, each of the women holding their secrets too close to their chests.
Into this morass of silence drops Ruth, a sullen teenager, who is reluctantly staying with Flossy for a few weeks while her mother is off to a church conference. By this point in the novel, Ruth is just what we all need. Vibrant, lovely and full of energy, she is easily won over by the calm humour of Flossy and Mealie, and the hidden opportunities of small town life – a baseball team which desperately needs her skills, and of course an attractive boy.
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The language of the book is a tapestry of vivid imagery, dripping with metaphors and similes. We hear the language of the Maritimes, where every little town has its own peculiar idioms and accent. Flossy’s ideas are “Tangled like a fishing line.” Images frequently draw on farm life: “As routinized as a Holstein cow,” “I’m sweatin’ like a hen hauling hay.” We move from saccharinely cute little teddy bears hanging from purses to the gruesome slaughter of a pig.
Donnelly’s observations of human nature make the characters as vivid as if they are in the room with you; unsettled, Marjory sits shredding an orange peel into the tiniest pieces possible. Her brother Jimmy chews the inside of his cheek. Her mother feels for a coat button that isn’t there.
Throughout, echoes of death are reinforced by Flossy’s interest in Virginia Woolf. As she comes near the end of reading Woolf’s diaries, our sense of doom heightens. We are with Flossy as she imagines herself walking into the river with stones in her pockets just as Virginia did.
Another source of sadness is reflection on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose life was full of mental illness and loss. Bishop lived in Great Village at one time, and the formation of The Elizabeth Bishop Society is currently the focus of local activity. Her poems connect us to the ocean, and to the contrast of change and constancy in Flossy, who learned to accept the things in her life that had broken others.
I have only two small issues with the book. First, even though much of the language and focus is local, there are leaps into the literary world that left me behind. I found myself looking up references to Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury Group (which I thought was perhaps a comic strip). Donnelly assumes I am more widely read than I can claim.
Second, how did Flossy evolve? She has appeared to us as a woman well read, deep and wise but we have no idea of how she became the woman that she is. But when it comes down to it, at the end we don’t care, it is such a warm pleasure to meet her.
I came away from this book feeling a gentle reassuring hand on my back, feeling hope even in the face of death. I was enriched by Flossy’s friendships with Mealie and with Virginia Woolf, in fact more than a little envious of both.
Sheila Eastman is a musician living in Mississauga. She plays and teaches piano and five-string banjo (eee haw) and performs in local concert bands in the percussion section hitting things. Her writing reflects detailed observations of human behavior and her bizarre sense of humour.
Sheila has a novel in progress but prefers writing short stories because they are short. She is a past winner in the Mississauga Library writing Contest, poetry division. Publications include obscure articles on medieval music, a monograph on a Canadian composer and articles on wildflowers.
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